My Embarrassing Moment at SETIcon

Last week over at SkepticBlog, I wrote up a piece about my trip to SETIcon, the annual space exploration conference put on by the SETI Institute. No need to repeat here all my gushing about how awesome it was, but it was really awesome.

There were a couple of firsts for me. It was the first time I’ve been to a conference as a regular attendee (not a speaker) for at least ten years, which provided a welcome chance for relaxation. And it was the first time I’ve ever seen an expert panel totally, completely, stumped speechless.

It was, of course, my dumb question that did it. The session was “Humans vs. Robots: Who Should Explore Space?” and the panelists included space entrepreneur, Lunar X Prize guy, and Singularity University co-founder Bob Richards; four-time shuttle astronaut and U.N. advisor Tom Jones; planetary geologist and Space Exploration for Dummies author Cynthia Phillips; Star Trek: Voyager actor and Planetary Society advocate Robert Picardo; and the moderator was Antarctic astrobiologist Dale Andersen. My question, which I thought was a good one, was:

Do any of you see any realistic application in space exploration for Von Neumann machines or Merkle machines?

And then, an extraordinary (to me) thing happened. The panelists stared at each other in absolute silence. After about 20 seconds of excruciating awkwardness, the moderator simply said “Let’s take another question right down here.”

Also, nobody really talked to me the rest of the weekend. They gave me a wide berth if they saw me coming down the hall.

It required my daughter to explain to me that probably nobody knew what the hell I was talking about. I had just finished the research for my Skeptoid episode on nanotechnology and nanobots, and I just naturally assumed that everyone was already familiar with the two types of self-replicating robots, Von Neumann machines and Merkle machines. I especially thought the panelists on robotic space exploration would know them. Evidently not.

Anyway, I made myself look like an idiot. I’ve never before seen a panel so stunned that they couldn’t even stammer out a syllable or two.

[Just to be clear: I post this only as a humorous anecdote, and not as a criticism of the panel.]

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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15 Responses to My Embarrassing Moment at SETIcon

  1. Mchl says:

    Show off!

    Happened to me once too, although to a lot less formidable panel and much smaller audience. 🙂

  2. Tracy M says:

    Could have been worse. If you had attended SETIcon while researching De Loys’ Ape and asked about the likelihood of finding the Planet of the Apes.

  3. Jason says:

    I think this shows a lack of tact in your peers Brian. I suppose I get the stunned silence of the panel, but It irks me that you were alienated afterwards. That just seems a bit immature. I also find it strange that the panelists didn’t know about Von Neumann machines and self-replicating robots. (Though I suppose I can’t say much, my first encounter with Von Neumann machines came after a quick google search while reading the alt-text of “”)

    Main point: Don’t stress over it, It ‘s doesn’t seem like a huge deal. 🙂

  4. Craig Good says:

    I think that reflects poorly on the panelists, not you. If they didn’t understand the question they could simply have said so. FWIW, I didn’t know those terms before today’s Skeptoid. But I like to think I would have asked, “Would you describe briefly what those machines are?”

    Or maybe they heard “Urkel” and thought you were talking about machines that break a lot.

  5. Tim Canny says:

    Well, I guess we know which panel you’ll be heading up at the next SETIcon.

  6. Denis Solaro says:

    Funny moment. I did know about the Von Neuman machines you mentioned a week ago on google plus, but because I remember reading it in Steven Levy’s book Artificial Life. He does have a bit about who speculated what then. Next time do like I do, ask the question to Pamela Gay under an assumed name like Hans or Peter.

    I did worse, when at a Computer Graphics conference in Montreal I did ask the guys from ILM when will there be graphics with that retro look, you know like in Tron and not perfect like in Jurassic Park (this was in 92 or 93). And then there was this silence and I realised most graphics in Tron were done by hand to simulate a “computer vision” in an age that didn’t know about texture mapping. Doh.

  7. Shawn Connelly (@shawndconnelly) says:

    I concur with Craig.

    The panel did wrong by not asking you to elaborate. A truly intelligent person will understand that it is impossible to know absolutely everything. By not admitting they didn’t understand the question, they did a disservice to themselves, and to their audience.

    On the other hand, as an avid reader of Skeptoid, I now know a little bit about Von Neumann and Merkle machines.

    Thanks Brian!

  8. Kevin Hoover says:

    They had to have known what a Von Neumann machine was. I’m guessing the Merkle monkey wrenched them and they locked up. Someone – the host, maybe? – should have simply asked you to define those terms for the audience, if not the panel as well.

  9. David Green says:

    Reminds me of a question I got at my first TAM paper presentation at TAM 5. I was pretty much left asking, “Say what now?” Everybody who talked to me afterwards said they felt the same, though.

  10. Henk v says:

    I takes me tin foil hat off to yer Brian!

    I would have asked if Major League Baseball ran interference. You have style!

  11. Brandon says:

    In college I once asked a visiting author, “What do you feel is the most valid criticism of your own work?” Everyone turned to stare at me.

    The author asked the professor if I had somewhere else to be, and I felt like a moron. Thankfully he then laughed and went on to answer the question.

    I think everyone has been there at one point or another Brian, on both ends. It’s one of those times where everyone feels dumber. Hopefully everyone then learns something and everyone can feel smarter immediately after!

  12. Jeff Grigg says:

    If they had no idea what you were talking about, they could have asked for definitions of the two terms. :-[

  13. brad tittle says:

    I once asked a Master’s student researching measurement using digital cameras “What was the actual measurement of your samples using traditional measuring techniques”.

    I thought I was asking the ultimate softball question. I could look like I was participating. She could answer an easy question…

    She answered “I guess you just through my last year of research out the window!”

  14. Karl Johanson says:

    You most certainly didn’t make yourself look like an idiot. Neither we they idiots for not knowing what your question meant. The moderator should have been more polite, possibly with a, “it looks like none of the panelists have any comment on that, sorry, so we’ll go to the next question.”

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